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Signs of Hope

Sermon - 11/29/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 21:5-8, 25-33

[This was the annual "Hanging of the Greens" service at First Christian, when the sanctuary is decorated for Christmas.  Pictures included below]

This service has enough complications in it that I think sometimes we need a Production Manager :).  But it is a lot of fun, and always special to have so many children, visitors, and others with us on this very special day.

The text in the lectionary for this first Sunday of Advent comes from the 21st chapter of Luke's gospel, reading verses 5 through 8 and 25 through 33.  You're invited to follow along in your own Bible or the pew Bible:

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 

I'm going to guess that this was probably not the text that you expected to hear this morning.  I mean, here we are, we've hardly digested our turkey and cranberries, and already angles have harked their heralds in Wal Mart; the first Noel has been given to certain poor shepherds at Macy's; three kings bearing gifts have traversed Albertson's; donkey, cattle, and oxen await a divine miracle in a manger we call. . . . .Autzen :).

One of these miracles, Santa Claus came early, I found a T-shirt hanging in my closet especially for that miracle about to occur that guarantees that I will have the right shirt to wear, and I can celebrate victory.

I'm covered!

So, naturally we come to church this Sunday with the signs of Christmas already abundant all around us wherever we go.  And we expect to hear a scripture about angels and stars in the East and other celestial wonders.  Instead, we are rather rudely awakened this morning with apocalyptic images of shaking heavens, roaring seas, and a Son of Man descending in the clouds.

So what's going on here?  This is supposed to be a season of peace, love, and joy.  Why does the lectionary draw our attention to this rather cryptic doomsday language of Jesus?

Well, first of all, it's one of the ways to remind us that the seasons of the churches year are not synonymous with those of the rest of the world.  We march by a different drummer.  We are in the world, but not of the world.  Our calendar is not the world's calendar.  It's not set by the shopping season.  Football season may be another story :) . . . .

And as we saw in the text from last Sunday, the kingdom of Jesus is not from this world.  We are called to live by a different standard.

Second of all, reading this text from the last chapter of Jesus' life on this first Sunday of the churches year, is a way of beginning with the end in mind.  We do not enter into the advent season naively, without any knowledge of the things that will take place and how this story ends.  The innocence and serenity of the little town of Bethlehem will soon give way to the brutality of Rome on the hills outside Jerusalem.

Third, reading this text reminds us that the season of advent really is not about the birth of Jesus at all.  It's about the coming of Christ into our world amidst all of this chaos and confusion today.  And rightfully understood, the coming Christ is not about the end of the world, but about the completion of creation.

And so this season reminds us that so much more is at stake than what we put under the tree, or our own individual lives.  The Christmas story is not merely the drama of a Jewish peasant born in a stable and crucified as a King to save us.  Nor is it even the story of a nation's messiah come to save the people of God in a fallen world.  No, it is the grand drama of God's work to bring the realm of God to fruition for the benefit of all creation.

As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans:  "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of glory of the children of God".

And so the proper focus on this first Sunday of advent is not the birth of Jesus, because that will come in due time (as all births will), so before we force Mary into pre-mature labor, I invite us to stop and take a look at the signs of the realm of God at hand.  The tender chutes that tell us we are in the season of advent.

In the text from Luke, Jesus speaks of distress, fear, and foreboding.  Hardly the signs of the presence of God.  But Jesus says it is in the face of such tribulation that we are to have hope.  To know that God is nearer than we think.

In a time of global upheaval that would destroy all hope, Jesus affirms not all is lost.  The Son of Man will appear in a cloud with power and glory.  And seeking to understand this rather cryptic image, a little historical awareness sheds much light on the text.

Those who look to this passage, and others like it, to find some evidence of a recently fulfilled or soon-to-be fulfilled prediction about the imminent end of the world totally miss the significance of verse 32 when Jesus says "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place".

Someone needs to tell the preacher of the apocalypse, pastor Hagee in Texas and others like him (Hagee the founder of Christians United for Israel) who is convinced that the reestablishment of the nation of Israel is a sign that the end of the world is coming.  And of course if you know that story, you know how it ends -- it doesn't end well for Israel.  I tried to tell the Director of that organization when he was in Eugene earlier this year that it's really not a good thing to be standing with such a group, affirming that kind of message in today's world.  I hope that gets back to pastor Hagee.

That Jesus may have been referring to our generation, you see, is simply absurd.  It would mean that his words of comfort and hope had no meaning for the people of his generation or every generation since, until ours.

The purpose of this text was not to predict events far into the future, but to provide comfort and hope in the face of trial and tribulation in the time in which it was proclaimed.  And indeed, there was that kind of upheaval in the world at that time, in Palestine shortly before Luke wrote his gospel that turned the Jewish world upside-down.  It was quite literally the end of the world for them.  At least for the Jewish nation -- bringing an end to the Temple and to Jerusalem as the capital of the then defunct Israel.

That war, which ended with the mass suicide of the last Jewish zealots in the fortress of Masada towering over the Dead Sea, an event that is recalled in the commissioning of Israeli military officers to this day (I learned when I was at Masada last year) had global implications for the next 2,000 years.

It was not only a cataclysmic event for the Jewish world, but also for the Christian community, with every Christian in Palestine caught up in the terror of that war.  And add to that the periodic persecutions of Christians, begun under Nero around the same time, and the rise of martyrdom for many Christian leaders, and you can see why they needed some hope.  Some assurance that they would survive this.

And this is the context to which the words of Jesus are addressed, providing courage and assurance for those who would greatly need that hope if they were to survive the terror of Rome's oppressive brutality.

Jesus, we have to admit, was wrong.  For no savior in the clouds (or shining armor for that matter) appeared to rescue them or otherwise end that terror before those of that first generation passed.

Jesus was wrong about the so-called 'second coming', unless Jesus was referring to an altogether different manifestation, or once again an incarnation, of God in our world.

So here's the question, or the challenge I want to put to you this advent season:  could it be that when Jesus was talking about the Son of Man coming in the clouds (an image taken out of the 7th chapter of Daniel from another time of great upheaval) that He was not referring to himself per se, but to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the church?  The followers of Jesus, the body of Christ. 

Could it be that he meant that it's in the community of his followers where we will see the power and the glory of God at work in our world today?

That in the midst of trial and tribulation of all kinds, we will find in the community of God's people the support we need to keep going, to keep hope alive.

Is it possible that this notion of the Son of Man coming from the heavens is another way of saying that there is real help available to us from on high when we most need it?

Did Jesus not say that the kingdom of God is among us, with us, within us, is the place where God dwells, lives, and rules?  In the community of God's people.

This is our hope.  God is in our midst.  God is not through with us yet.  The present reality, with all of its pain and imperfections is not the final creation. There is still something better in this world to come.

So how can I be so confident that such is the case?  Other than the Ducks? :)

I know that God is in our midst, because I have been with you in some of the most difficult, painful times that anyone ever endures in their lives.  I have seen hope lost after a death, and then regained as God has been revealed to you in the midst of that sorrow.

I've seen the fear of a terminal diagnosis, and the peace of acceptance when life is lived a day at a time, trusting in God.

I know the realm of God is in our midst because I saw the food that was gathered right here last Sunday and saw the people who received and benefitted from your generosity in that outpouring, that abundance of grace, precisely in this time of celebrating the abundance of the harvest of God's goodness.

I know Christ is present because I have seen your response to our participation in the Egan Warming Center, as we work with others in our community to make sure that no one again freezes on the streets of our community and dies alone.

I know that Christ continues to come into our world because I have seen the lives transformed by your efforts to make Christ's love tangible in this community today.

I've seen the hungry fed.  I've seen the homeless housed.  I've seen addicts redeemed, the naked clothed, hope rediscovered, love reborn, and dignity restored because the light of God is alive and shines here in your work.

These are the signs of hope I see.  Signs that point to the nearness of God's realm.  Signs of God's justice and peace at work right here.

This is what advent is all about.  This is why we decorate.  To celebrate the coming of Christ in our world, to transform this place of worship as we transform our world and our lives.

Because the transforming power of Christ is available to us, and is in us.

That's the hope of advent.  To show the power and the glory of our coming Lord.

May it be.

 


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